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‘Hunger era’ in Vietnam – P2: Malnutrition spread to all corners

Wednesday, April 22, 2015, 08:48 GMT+7
‘Hunger era’ in Vietnam – P2: Malnutrition spread to all corners
By the middle of the 1980s, more and more rice from the Mekong Delta region was transported to Ho Chi Minh City to help it cope with malnutrition.

A person in Ho Chi Minh City was granted only six kilograms of rice a month in the state-subsidized period between the late 1970s and the late 1980s but even the subsidy itself was not ensured back then.

>> An audio version of the story is available here

>> ‘Hunger era’ in Vietnam – P1: Job’s tears during late 1970s-80s

Then-Ho Chi Minh City Party Secretary Vo Van Kiet, who later became the prime minister in 1991-97, once warned that the warehouses of the city only stored enough rice for residents to use for a couple of days.

Despite a shortage of rice supply due to a reduction in production as a result of wrong polices in national economic and political management, Ho Chi Minh City then had to provide aid for Hanoi and other northern localities, where malnutrition was even worse.

The rice shortage was later attributed to mistakes in state management in Vietnam, which is now the second biggest rice exporter in the world.

Back then, rice fields traditionally managed by individual farmers were organized into cooperatives, a kind of collective management.

Work and achievements were equally shared to clear the gap between rich people managing vast areas of rice fields and normal peasants.

As a result, farmers had less motivation to work and the output of rice kept going down considerably.

The situation was worsened by the centrally-managed market model that limited the free circulation of goods and farming products between localities nationwide.

It resulted in a scarcity of rice in cities and clothes, fuel, and daily necessities in the countryside.

Rumor then had it that Ho Chi Minh City was running out of rice, which traveled really fast and caused rice prices in the black market to become many times higher than those fixed by the state, recounted Cao Thi Hao, vice chief of the food granting unit under the then-Ministry of Food.

The city had had a redundancy of rice for the preceding 300 years.

As malnutrition was more severe in Hanoi and the rumor might cause social disorder, Hao asked her seniors to dispatch five trucks, fully loaded with rice sent from the southern region, to run along the streets and stop at all state-owned food shops in the capital with their canvases covering the cargo completely open.

The move was just to make Hanoians feel safe and quash the rumor that shook the community then.

In reality, the amount of rice on the five trucks was merely enough for a residential area to use for several days, Hao admitted.

As an official, Hao and her family members were rationed to the same volume of rice as other families.

She and her husband were entitled to a total of 13kg of rice a month, plus four to five kilograms of rice a month for each of her three children.

“On many days, I felt exhausted from hunger while riding my bicycle to work from the food ministry on Ngo Quyen Street to the So Crossroads in Hanoi,” Hao said. “But going home, I saw the pan left without a pinch of cool rice.”

However, Hao admitted she and her family were still better than other people who were not always granted enough rice every month.

Doan Duy Thanh, former deputy chairman of the board of ministers, which is now equivalent to the deputy prime minister, said he visited a family during his working trip to Hoa Nghia Commune in the northern city of Hai Phong and saw three children lying exhausted in bed from hunger.

“Asked about their parents, the three said they were catching fish along the coast to exchange for rice,” Thanh said.

He recalled his feelings when he thought of the fact that Vietnamese people fought invaders for land and everything in their home country, but years after liberation his people still suffered malnutrition.

Before, each land plot produced 100kg of rice per crop, but that volume was reduced to just 40kg upon the establishment of cooperatives, after the liberation year 1975, Thanh recounted.

No one was eager to work with the cooperatives because farmers did not have enough rice, he explained.

During the period of state subsidy, most state-owned rice shops had enough rice to sell within the first ten days of each month.

To have more food, all families used their gardens to raise chickens and plant vegetables.

“Now, I am still in the habit of eating a bowl of cool rice for breakfast, exactly as what I did during the malnutrition period. But a bowl of rice was far more precious then,” said Doctor Nguyen Van Huy, former director of the Hanoi-based Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and the son of the former education minister Nguyen Van Huyen.

Food aid

Le Van Triet, former trade minister in the malnutrition time, said the government and the law-making National Assembly convened so many meetings to exhaustively discuss the provision of food for people.

A leader of the north-central province of Thanh Hoa cried bitterly during a meeting on being questioned why his locality, which had an advantage of growing rice, let people suffer from a serious shortage of the grain and admitted he was helpless.

During the Lunar New Year (Tet) in 1988, over 100 people in Thanh Hoa died of hunger. Thanh, the former deputy chairman of the board of ministers, admitted the fatalities were not fully reported.

Nguyen Thanh Tho, former Deputy Party Secretary of Ho Chi Minh City, said he was tasked with bringing some rice for food aid to Thanh Hoa and was shocked at witnessing ordinary people competing to pick up the grains dropped at a railway station in the province.

Tho said that he asked a local official about the rice reserves of the locality and the official replied, “We have some but it is just enough for state officials.”

Hao, from the food ministry, confessed that she was stunned to see an elderly woman fall to the ground and unable to stand up while she was walking out to receive a delegation of state officials on a working trip to check the distribution of food.

The son of the elderly woman told the delegation that she was exhausted since she had had no food to eat for many days.

Groups of trucks carrying rice from the south for food aid to the north could not go directly to Hanoi via those provinces suffering serious malnutrition such as Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, Hao said, hinting that the trucks were facing risks of being robbed by hungry people.

The shortage of rice in Hanoi was then so severe that Nguyen Duy Trinh, then-standing member of the Party Secretariat, ordered ‘rice provinces’ in the north such as Hai Hung, Ha Bac, Thai Binh, and Ha Nam Ninh to ‘fulfil their political responsibilities’ to supply the grain to the capital city.

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